Holding onto my hat

Holding onto my hat

Thursday, October 30, 2014

“Welcome to the Istana!”

Disclaimer: This is just a pointless piece I wrote to entertain and console myself.  No socio-political commentary is being expressed.  Any semblance of socio-political opinion or innuendo detected is purely coincidental and imaginary.

"The Istana is the official residence of the President of the Republic of Singapore.  It occupies over 40 hectares of land along Orchard Road.  It is a precious and important part of Singapore's history and heritage, and has borne witness to Singapore's many historical milestones." [1]

Sometimes, you decide to visit the Istana for leisure, education or a sense of patriotism. Sometimes, you visit the Istana because you have to.

For instance, say you have a disagreement with a certain government official. The applicable statute may bind you to resolve your disagreement by lodging an Appeal to President of Singapore. [2]

On 20 October 2014, a group of Singapore citizens having some issues with a government official, tasked me to convey their letter of appeal to the elected President of Singapore. [3]

Generally, there are three ways to convey letters: (1) by email; (2) by post; or (3) by personal delivery.

Choosing the mode of delivery was a no-brainer.  I decided on Option 3 as it meant making a trip to the Istana, a place I have never visited but always wanted to.  Besides, it just didn’t sound right to email or post such an important document as a letter of appeal to the President.

A pre-emptory internet check confirmed the address of the Istana as "Orchard Road, Singapore 238823 (Near Dhoby Ghaut MRT Station)". [4]

And so, attiring myself in a long-sleeved blouse in my favourite colour and with the important missive in my hand, I rode the MRT to the Istana at Orchard Road on that sunny Monday afternoon. 

Upon arrival at the Istana gate at Orchard Road, I posed happily for a photo-opportunity selfie, before proceeding towards the policeman standing sentry at the Istana guard post. 

Picture 1: Posing for a selfie at the wrong entrance

Arriving at the Wrong Entrance

I had come to the wrong place, he informed me. "Documents are to be delivered to the Rear Entrance, located at Cavenagh Road", said the policeman who sounded nice.

"How far to walk there from here?" I asked. "20 to 30 minutes," said he. 

Feeling extremely sceptical and challenged to prove him wrong, I dispensed with a taxi, turned my heels and strutted towards the Rear Entrance at Cavenagh Road.

To the complete vindication of the nice-sounding policeman from the Orchard Road gate, I arrived at the Rear Entrance 25 minutes later, a little slimmer and my complexion several shades darker.

Having successfully arrived at the correct entrance for the Office of the President, I fished out my smartphone for a commemorative selfie, as all worthy Singaporeans would do on such an august occasion. 

Just then, I felt the perceptible sting of hard gaze from many human and electronic eyeballs falling on me. 

"No photos here!" growled an unhappy sounding policeman who stood astride the Rear Entrance.  He was clearly well-trained in the art of fixing his eyes for a cold stare, but perhaps less well-trained in the art of making conversation.   

A bevy of other policemen pacing behind watched me closely.  Conceding that I had nothing much to say in response to his 3-word sentence, I surrendered my quest for a selfie at the Rear Entrance.

In contrast to my joy at arriving at the President’s Office, the posse guarding the Rear Entrance did not seem pleased with my presence at all.

Picture 2: 
Leaving the Rear Entrance
after lodging the Appeal
I felt like the protagonist in a wuxia movie [5] trying to enter the gates of the Forbidden City.  Scenes from the period movie tickled me and I thought of entertaining my surly company by cracking a joke: “Bro, relak [6] la. I come as an Appellant, not as an Assassin!” 

Judging from the glares from the countenances of those well-trained people, I evaluated that they were either impervious to humour or lacked sense of the same. With deadly speed, I killed off my bad joke before it saw the light of day.   

I decided that it was best for me and for the happiness of the company I was in, that I quickly deliver my letter and quickly depart.  And which was exactly what I did.  I entered the Rear Entrance, did what I had come to do, and then exited the Rear Entrance gate to the freedom of the public space. 

When I felt that there was a sufficient distance between me and the gaze of human and electronic eyeballs radiating from and around the Rear Entrance, I whipped out my smartphone for a parting shot of the Rear Entrance, before scuttling away.  

Picture 3: My parting shot of the Rear Entrance

4 Tips for Prospective Appellants to the President

Here below are 4 Tips which I have compiled for the benefit of those who may need to visit the Istana to convey appeals or letters to the President. 

Tip No. 1: 

You cannot deliver your letter of appeal to the President at the Orchard Road Istana gate. You must do so at the Rear Entrance located at Cavenagh Road.  This piece of information is not found at the website of the Istana which only states the Orchard Road address.  If you fail to read Tip No. 1, then Tip No. 2 will apply.

Tip No. 2: 

Depending on your state of physical fitness and/or your footwear, it may take up to 30 minutes to walk from the Orchard Road gate to the Rear Entrance gate, and the walking gradient is uphill.  You will repent if you had chosen your attire and footwear based on aesthetics rather than on practicality.

Tip No. 3:  

There are many cameras posted at and around the Rear Entrance that will capture your image. However, any regrets over attire choices based on aesthetics over practicality will be compensated by the fact that you will look good in the images captured of you by those cameras. 

Tip No. 4: 

At the Rear Entrance, you will be closely stared at by a humour-challenged group of non-conversationalists in blue uniforms, at least one of whom will tell you not to take any photos even though you are standing on public space outside the Rear Entrance - and none of whom will say to you: “Welcome to the Istana!

[1] http://www.istana.gov.sg/content/istana/theistana.html
[2] Section 21(8) of the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, Cap. 206
[3] NSP Press Release dated 23 October 2014 at http://nsp.sg/2014/10/20/appeal-to-the-president-mci-refuses-to-process-renewal-of-newspaper-permit/
[4] http://www.istana.gov.sg/content/istana/contact.html
[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hero_(2002_film)
[6] http://www.mysmu.edu/faculty/jacklee/singlish_R.htm

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Inside, Outside, Upside Down!

The absence of an independent electoral commission is inconsistent with Singapore’s claim to be a democratic nation.

Norfolk, England

On 11 May 1963, an English gentleman by the name of Frank Adler, somehow managed to gain access into Markham Royal Air Force Station in the English county of Norfolk. While within the boundaries of the Station, he obstructed a member of Her Majesty's forces and was promptly arrested. 

According to the UK Official Secrets Act 1920, the Markham Royal Air Force Station was a prohibited place and it was an offence for anyone to obstruct a member of Her Majesty's forces while ‘in the vicinity of any prohibited place’. 

Thinking he was clever, Mr Adler argued before the Court that as he was actually in the prohibited place, he could not be said to be "in the vicinity" of the prohibited place. 

The learned judge was not going to let Mr Adler get away with such a ridiculous argument.  Mr Adler was found guilty of the offence. 

The judge explained that the words "in the vicinity of" should be interpreted to mean on or near the prohibited place.  If the Court was confined to only the literal meaning of the words, it would have produced absurdity - as someone obstructing a member of Her Majesty's forces near the Station would be committing an offence, whilst someone doing the same thing inside the Station would not.

Mr Adler's case[1] is well-known to law students as being a classic example of the courts applying what lawyers call the "Golden Rule" for statutory interpretation. Under the Golden Rule, where a literal interpretation of a wording gives an absurd result, which Parliament could not have intended, the judge can substitute a reasonable meaning in the light of the statute as a whole.   

Cheng San, Singapore

2 January 1997 was Polling Day in Singapore.  On that day, top PAP guns walked into and stood inside a Cheng San GRC polling station while people were lining up to cast their votes. They were Prime Minister Mr Goh Chok Tong, Deputy Prime Minister Dr Tony Tan and Deputy Prime Minister Brigadier-General (NS) Lee Hsien Loong, none of whom were candidates for Cheng San GRC.

At that time, Cheng San GRC was being hotly contested by The Workers' Party. As to the extent to which citizens at Cheng San GRC polling station were influenced to change their votes upon seeing high-ranking PAP leaders congregating there, we will never know. 

PAP won Cheng San GRC by a narrow margin of 54.8% to 45.2%.

After the 1997 General Election, the Workers' Party lodged a complaint to the police that Mr Goh Chok Tong, Dr Tony Tan and Brigadier-General (NS) Lee Hsien Loong had been inside a Cheng San GRC polling station on Polling Day.  The Workers' Party cited two sections of the Parliamentary Elections Act:

Section 82(1)(d):
"No person shall wait outside any polling station on polling day, except for the purpose of gaining entry to the polling station to cast his vote".

Section 82(1)(e):
"No person shall loiter in any street or public place within a radius of 200 metres of any polling station on polling day."

However, the Attorney-General stated that the PAP leaders had not broken the law. 

Pointing to the use of the word “outside” in Section 82(1)(d), the Attorney-General explained[2]:

“Plainly, persons found waiting inside the polling stations do not come within the ambit of this section. …. Only those who wait outside the polling station commit an offence under this section unless they are waiting to enter the polling station to cast their votes.”

As for Section 82(1)(e), the Attorney-General pointed to the use of the word “within” and explained[3]:

“The relevant question is whether any person who is inside a polling station can be said to be "within a radius of 200 metres of any polling station". … Plainly, a person inside a polling station cannot be said to be within a radius of 200 metres of a polling station.”

All these explanations of the English prepositions “in”, “within”, “inside”, “outside” – is making my head go terbalik[4]!
I need to go back to reading nursery books to refresh my understanding of “inside” and “outside”. (By the way, a very good nursery book which explains the meanings of these words is the children’s classic "Inside, Outside, Upside Down" by Stan & Jan Berenstain. I used to read that book to my children when they were toddlers.)

If Singapore had an independent election commission overseeing the election procedures, the Workers’ Party would have been able to lodge their complaint to such a body, instead of lodging their complaint to the police as they did. 

Unfortunately, Singapore does not have an independent election commission.   

In 2011, UN member countries called on Singapore to establish bodies such as a human rights institution and an independent electoral commission. The Singapore Government rejected the UN calls, arguing that such bodies were not necessary. The Singapore Government said:

“Elections in Singapore have always been conducted fairly. The electoral system and its procedures are clearly spelt out in Singapore law which applies to all political participants, regardless of affiliation. The Singapore Elections Department, staffed by civil servants, adheres to the Parliamentary Elections Act and conducts elections in a fair and transparent manner. During the conduct of elections, there are equal opportunities for all political participants to observe and monitor voting operations. The result is an electoral system of integrity that has enjoyed high public trust and served Singapore well." [5]

The Singapore Government’s official explanation side-steps the actual problems of not having an independent electoral commission.

Notably, we have no safeguards against gerrymandering. Gerrymandering is when electoral boundaries are drawn so as to manipulate vote percentages to benefit the political interests of an incumbent government. Gerrymandering undermines the integrity of the electoral process.  Hence, it is crucial to have an independent body to oversee the process of boundary delimiting.

At every general election in Singapore, boundaries have been drawn and re-drawn; constituencies have come and gone.  The reasons for making those changes have never been satisfactorily explained to the public. 

The Elections Department being under the purview of the Prime Minister’s Office, it is a hopelessly constrained agency.  We need an independent electoral commission to safeguard the integrity of the process of choosing our national leaders, and more importantly, to give citizens confidence in the legitimacy and fairness of the result.
The lack of an independent electoral commission is a glaring gap in Singapore’s electoral system.  The Singapore Government’s official explanation for denying its citizens the benefit of an independent election commission, is inadequate and unconvincing. 

Up to now, the ruling party has had to continually fend off persistent criticisms that it has created an un-level political playing field in order to preserve its political incumbency. However, when the PAP-led Government sets up an independent electoral commission, I am sure that PAP critics will have a lot less to complain about. 

But the time when it will be of greatest significance to the PAP, is on the day when the PAP becomes an opposition party. When that day comes, I have no doubt PAP would then be very glad for the existence of the independent election commission they had established while they had been the ruling party.  

By Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss

[1] Adler v George [1964] 2 QB 7
[2] http://www.singapore-window.org/ag0721.htm
[3] http://www.singapore-window.org/ag0721.htm
[4] Means “upside-down” in Bahasa Melayu
[5] (Para 96.25, Addendum to Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review, 22 September 2011)